History is not a process of continuous development, more one of recurrently punctuated equilibrium. In the long sweep of events, there is nothing out of the ordinary in the collapse of Northern Rock, or – in the history of the planet – in global warming. Discontinuity, not gradual change, is the norm. Rather than clinging to flimsy narratives of progress, we need to cultivate the art of intelligent improvisation. That means junking a good deal of rubbish from the past, starting with the idea that free markets are the end point of human evolution.
John Gray savages Matt Ridley’s neoliberal tract, The Rational Optimist:
“There is nothing new in this kind of thinking. It was the eccentric Victorian sage Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) who coined the expression “survival of the fittest” and promoted the idea that laissez-faire capitalism was the final stage of social evolution. Impressed by Spencer’s work, Sidney and Beatrice Webb adopted his idea that economic systems evolve in competition with one another, but nominated Stalinist collectivism rather than the free market as the final winner. Laissez-faire was reinstated as the winning system towards the end of the 20th century, when Spencer’s ideology was resurrected in the later writings of Friedrich Hayek. Ridley is doing little more than recycle some of the aged Hayek’s dafter ideas.
Whatever political goals it is used to promote, the idea of cultural evolution is not much more than a misleading metaphor. Laissez-faire was not the result of any spontaneous process of social evolution; it was imposed on society through the use of state power. Memes are just a pseudo-scientific way of talking about ideas, not actually existing physical entities. There is nothing in society that resembles the natural selection of random genetic mutations; even if such a mechanism existed, there is nothing to say its workings would be benign. Bad ideas do not evolve into better ones. They tend to recur, as racist memes are doing at present in parts of the world where economic dislocation is reviving hatred of minorities and immigrants. Knowledge advances, but in ethics and politics the same old rubbish keeps on piling up. The idea of social evolution is rubbish of this kind, a virulent meme that continues to reproduce and spread despite having been refuted time and time again.
The best evidence against Ridley’s claim that ideas evolve is the existence of this book, which reproduces some of the most pernicious myths of social Darwinism. Spencer and his disciples thought evolution was a progressive movement from lower to higher forms of life. But natural selection has nothing to do with progress – as Darwin put it in his Autobiography, it is like the wind, which blows without any design or purpose. Certainly human development has been affected by the material environment – geography, climate and resource scarcity, for example. But rather than evolving, societies regularly break down, and what comes next is determined by power, chance and (occasionally) human choices rather than any supposed evolutionary laws. Evolution is one thing, progress another, and human history something else again.
Disdainful or ignorant of the past, Ridley is uninterested in the forces that shape events. He writes hundreds of pages about the wealth-increasing virtues of free markets, but allots post-Mao China only a few lines. This brevity is symptomatic, as China falsifies Ridley’s central thesis; the largest burst of continuous economic growth in history has occurred without the benefit of free markets. Wealth has been created as never before, not as a result of evolutionary change, but as a product of revolution and dictatorship.
For Ridley, rationality has nothing to do with checking that his beliefs are true. If awkward facts crop up, he ignores them. China is one such fact; another is climate change. He does not exactly deny the existence of global warming, but leaving scientific evidence aside, he invokes the spectre of the world’s poor. Developing countries need industrial growth, so global warming is beside the point: “The richer they get, the less weather-dependent their economies will be and the more affordable they will find adaptation to climate change.” Here, a demotic appeal to sympathy is combined with dogmatic disregard for real-life conditions. In Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the small Pacific nations, some of the world’s poorest societies are already suffering from climate change. Telling them they need more economic growth is not very helpful when they are being destroyed by drought or rising sea levels. In these circumstances, it is Ridley’s gung-ho progressivism that is beside the point.”